Houston Rockets' Biggest Strengths and Weaknesses
The Houston Rockets have several strengths that have kept them in the Western Conference playoff picture into the season's final weeks, but their weaknesses have been what's kept them from being playoff locks.
Houston is currently clinging to the No. 7 seed in the playoffs. Sure, they aren't the No. 8 seed, but both the Los Angeles Lakers (No. 8) and the Utah Jazz (a half-game back of L.A.) are hot on their tails. With just eight more regular-season contests, the final two spots in the West are up for grabs.
Of the three squads, the Rockets have been a contender for the longest. Their 42-33 record isn't stellar, but the Rockets have beaten several tough opponents and have been a relatively consistent team. This would suggest that their strengths are on par with (if not better than) those of the Lakers and Jazz.
The weaknesses are what could be the nail in the coffin moving forward. Even if the Rockets make the playoffs, their weaknesses will give opponents the upper hand in each respective series.
There really isn't much time left to work on those faults, so it's just a matter of playing well enough to overshadow their downfalls.
Strength: Having a Star Player
The playoffs may be all about proving which team is the best, but often games will come down to which player is the best.
In clutch situations, each team's best player needs to step up and take over games. James Harden, in his first season as a Rocket and team leader, has already proved that he has the capability to lead his team to victory.
Harden is dropping 26.0 points per game in his first season as a starter. He's done so on 44.4 percent shooting and 37.4 percent shooting from beyond the arc. He's by far the best player on the court any given night for Houston, and the ball is almost always in his hands in late-game situations.
Harden's USG (usage rating) is 28.73 (hoopdata.com). That means that Harden touches the ball 28.73 percent of the time he's on the court. This is an extremely high number and ranks 11th in the NBA. The league average is 18.79, suggesting that he is actually used a significant amount.
With this being the case, Harden is a player that has shown that he can take over in tough games. Having such a player is crucial in the postseason. Often, it's difficult for teams to win without a top-notch NBA star.
Harden has proved this season that he is one.
Strength: Omer Asik
Omer Asik, a controversial signing during the offseason given his lack of experience as a starter, has turned into one of the Rockets' biggest strengths. While by no means dominant on either end of the floor, he fits the team's game plan perfectly and provides the team with exactly what it needs to win.
Asik is currently tied for second in the league with 11.6 rebounds per game. Of those 11.6, 3.4 have been offensive boards. This is invaluable on a team like the Rockets.
Harden, Jeremy Lin and Chandler Parsons all attempt over 10 shots per game. Not one of them shoots over 50 percent from the floor. This makes Asik extremely important. Asik's rebounding has given the team countless second-chance opportunities—not to mention putback attempts for himself.
His play in the post is also very important. While a work in progress down low, his presence gives Harden and Lin a safety net under the basket. After dishing the ball inside, these shooters have the opportunity to rid themselves of potential double-teams and get open for perimeter jumpers.
Asik is arguably the most underappreciated player on the Rockets and is a huge strength for them this season and in the future.
Strength: Bench Play
Houston's bench may rank 17th in the NBA in scoring (31.5 points per game), but they rank seventh amongst potential playoff teams in that category. Having a strong bench is often something that goes unnoticed in playoff basketball.
Starters play significant minutes in the playoffs. Coaches are generally not as willing to go to the bench as they are in the regular season, but role players who are producing will see important minutes in close games.
Patrick Beverley, Greg Smith, Carlos Delfino and James Anderson have all played well of late. This is a huge advantage for the Rockets entering the playoffs. Kevin McHale's rotational decisions have been questioned this season, but having productive players entering games will make his questionable decisions less harmful to the team.
The bench won't be expected to carry the Rockets to a first-round win against one of the top teams in the Western Conference, but you can be sure that their strong bench play will be the difference in close games.
Weakness: Kevin McHale
Kevin McHale has come under fire this season for his handling of Jeremy Lin.
Lin ranks 40th amongst NBA point guards in USG. Alexey Shved, Jerryd Bayless, Shannon Brown and Jimmer Fredette are just a few names that are used more on their respective teams than Lin is on the Rockets.
Lin's USG likely takes a hit because of Harden's MVP-caliber season, but it's still baffling that Lin—the point guard, mind you—doesn't handle the ball a good portion of the time.
To win in the playoffs, it's generally important to have a playmaking point guard. Mario Chalmers of the Miami Heat may be an exception to that generalization (even though he's a decent player in his own right). Tony Parker, Rajon Rondo and Jason Kidd have all won championships within the past decade.
While I'm not comparing Lin to the aforementioned guards, I am saying that Lin has the potential to do more for the Rockets offense than he has been given the opportunity to do. McHale's handling of Lin needs to change by the playoffs, or the Rockets could be looking at an early exit.
Lin has the potential to break out for big games on any given night, but Houston may never get to enjoy those nights if he isn't given the ball.
"Defense wins championships" is generally an expression reserved for the NFL, but having a good defense is definitely helpful in the NBA. Unfortunately for Houston, the Rockets do not have such a defense.
The Rockets allow 102.3 points per game, ranking them 28th in the entire league. The only teams worse are the Charlotte Bobcats and Sacramento Kings, both of which have a legitimate chance at winning fewer than 30 games this season.
Should they stay in the No. 7 seed, the Rockets stand to play the high-powered Oklahoma City Thunder in the first round. Their defensive flaws coupled with Oklahoma City's relentless scoring will not bode well for them. Moving forward (should they beat their opponent in the first round), Houston will have a tough go of it with a defense that ranks amongst the worst in the league.
A big part of that problem is leaving shooters open for shots beyond the arc. Rockets opponents convert 37.3 percent of their three-point shots, eighth-highest in the NBA. Maintaining assignments and putting hands in the faces of shooters are simple ways to remedy this problem.
The Rockets need work defensively.
Weakness: Performance on the Road
Away from Houston this season, the Rockets are 15-22. Their home record of 27-11 is impressive, but their failure to win on the road consistently is a huge reason why they don't rank amongst the Western Conference's top teams.
The Rockets will not have home-court advantage against any of their playoff opponents (unless they face the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference Finals). This will make it difficult for them to advance.
The combination of top-flight teams and unwelcoming crowds will give the Rockets a huge disadvantage during road games. When you consider a top-tier team like the Denver Nuggets, this becomes even more apparent.
The Nuggets are an absurd 33-3 at home this season. Should the Rockets play them in the playoffs, Denver will have the massive upper hand. Houston will have to make it past the first round for this to happen, of course (if the playoffs were to start today).
While not necessarily something that can be improved upon, the Rockets' road performance is a glaring weakness with the playoffs fast approaching.